Interview: Joseph Gordon-Levitt on “Don Jon”, Porn Clips and Scarlett Johansson


Joseph Gordon-Levitt introduces his film Don Jon to the screening audience at SXSW
(photo credit: Getty)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt has come a long way from his teen years on 3rd Rock from the Sun. He’s gone on to memorable roles in Mysterious Skin, 50/50, 500 Days of Summer, Inception, Looper and most recently Lincoln and could probably now have his pick of leading man roles in mainstream Hollywood movies. But the risk-taking 32-year old star has taken a slight detour to develop some new skill sets: screenwriting and directing.

His forthcoming film, Don Jon (formerly Don Jon’s Addiction) is a hybrid of Shame and Jersey Shore. JGL stars as the title character who has an addiction to perfect bronze skin, hair gel, and working out. He also has an addiction to online porn. He loves it. He can’t get enough of it. Even after he has sex with a delightfully skanky girl he picks up at a club, he sneaks away to have a post-coital masturbatory session with his online porn – which he actually enjoys more than sex. When he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), things start to change in his world of online smut and inability to connect with women.

The film made its debut at Sundance, but recently screened again at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin. We had the opportunity to talk to Joseph Gordon-Levitt about playing a buffed East Coast womanizer, being a first-time director, and porn, of course.

Where did you come up with the idea for this movie? What’s a nice boy from California doing playing Don Jon?

Joseph Gordon-Levitt: I wanted to tell a story about what I feel like is always getting in the way of love and that’s how we objectify each other and how media contributes to that. I thought a story about a guy who watches too much pornography and a girl who watches too many romantic Hollywood movies would be a really funny way at getting at those questions. Then I was thinking about the guy: “Okay, who is he and why is watching too much pornography?” I thought that if he’s just watching it because he can’t find a partner, that wouldn’t really get at the theme.

If he were a ladies man, but still had this habit of this always going back to the objectification of pornography, that would really bring it out. I thought, “Well, all right, who’s the classic ladies man?” and that’s when I thought of the literary character of Don Juan. Then I thought, “What would be sort of a contemporary Don Juan?” It was while I was in Vancouver working on the comedy, 50/50 with Seth Rogen that I thought, “What if I did it like that and made it funny?” I thought, “All right. What’s that version of Don Juan?” My first idea was this machismo, east coast guy with a gym body and shiny hair and all that. It made me laugh instantly and that was it. I just loved the idea. I thought, “Man, I could play that. It’d be really interesting.” I love playing characters that are really different from myself. I love challenging myself that way. I love finding a new way to talk and a new way to walk. I love wearing clothes that I wouldn’t normally wear. I love all that. This character fits the bill.


JGL in Don Jon

When did you decide that it was time to transition from acting to directing?

JGL: When you’re an actor there’s certain parts of the process that you just have nothing to do with. Where the camera goes or how it’s cut or the music – things like that. I was always really interested in being a part of that. I think a real turning point though was my 21st birthday. I bought myself my first copy of Final Cut Pro. I started teaching myself how to edit and I loved it. I loved it so much I dropped out of college. I would stay up all night just making little videos, pointing the camera on myself, putting them on the computer and cutting together little short videos and stuff. It’s so much fun to me. I knew that that’s what I wanted to do. Ever since then, I’ve been pretty intent on making a movie. I made a ton of little short films and videos over the years – hundreds of them – and now I got to make a big one.

How was your first experience as a director?

JGL: I loved it. I’ve been on so many sets. I’ve seen so many directors do it. I made so many little things on my own. I think that was really key – spending the time to shoot these little videos and cut them together. A short film is very different than a feature film and you’ll run into challenges making a feature film that you’ll never run into making a short film. A lot of it’s the same – like the way to cut something together, how to make sound and image work together to tell a story. I think it’s just been a matter of practice. Yes, I’ve been really fortunate to work with a bunch of really great directors who were really supportive. The year before I shot Don Jon I worked with Rian Johnson on Looper and then Christopher Nolan on Dark Knight Rises and then Steven Spielberg on Lincoln – in one year. All three of those guys were really inspiring and I learned a lot by watching them. That’s, I think, been the best education. That and, like I said, just making things on my own.

In the movie, Jon is addicted to watching porn online. How did you not make the porn overwhelm his character and the story?

JGL: It’s a kind of media that’s really prominent in our culture today. This is a movie that talks a lot about how different kinds of media influence our perspective on things and our expectations of things. How, rather than engaging in the present moment and with individual people, we often have a tendency to compare people to these expectations that we’ve learned from different kinds of media. Whether it’s pornography or Hollywood romantic movies or commercials or magazines. There’s all kinds of media in the movie.

Is that a viewpoint that stems from your work in romantic comedies?

JGL: For sure. Having grown up being on TV and in movies, it really put my focus on how media impacts our perspectives, cultures, and lives. This is a comedy about how it impacts our love lives and, in that way, I think it is a really personal movie.


JGL with Don Jon co-star Scarlett Johansson

In terms of the casting process, did you already have certain actors in mind when you were writing the story?

JGL: Yes. I had Scarlett (Johansson) in mind the entire time – from the very beginning of writing that character. I don’t know what I would have done if she didn’t like the script. I’m really fortunate that she did. I didn’t know her personally, I was just a fan of her work. I think she’s a really great actress. I went to Albuquerque where she was shooting The Avengers. I was able to arrange a meeting with her and told her about the movie and gave her the script.

I think she was really interested in what the movie’s about. This is a movie about how we objectify each other, especially women – and she is a woman who is objectified a lot. She’s a really smart person. She’s a really great artist and yet so much of what people talk about when it comes to her is just her surface looks. There’s so much more to talk about than that. I think she was really interested in making fun our culture that does that. That reduces a person like that to just a sex object. She got on board and yes, I’m really glad she did. I feel lucky.

How challenging was it to write your character as a likable one? He’s kind of sleazy.

JGL: For sure, especially in the beginning of the movie. That was always a fine line I wanted to walk. Those are often times my favorite protagonist — the ones who aren’t just your perfect hero. They have their flaws and the things that you see in them, and you’re like, “I don’t like that.” There’s like Warren Beatty’s character in Shampoo is a good example or Dustin Hoffman’s character in The Graduate. You like him, you’re rooting for him but he does some shit that’s like, “Why are you doing that, dude? Come on!” That’s how people are. There isn’t a human being in the world that is perfect all the time. Likewise, I don’t think there’s a human being in the world that’s evil and bad all the time. Everyone’s sort of a mixture of both and so to me, those are the most interesting characters.

As a writer, director and creator how do you know when to stop editing yourself?

JGL: That’s a great question. There’s a saying, I don’t know who it gets attributed to, “No work of art is ever completed, it’s abandoned.” I really like that. Another is attributed to Lorne Michaels, the creator of Saturday Night Live, and he says, “We don’t put on the show because it’s done. We put it on because it’s Saturday at 11:30.” I think there’s a lot of truth to that. This film is not totally finished yet. We got together a version to play at Sundance because it was Sundance. We had to really hit the gas to make that deadline. I feel really fortunate since the movie was well received and Relativity bought it. We have the opportunity to keep refining it a bit. I think the movie’s really benefiting for it also.


Don Jon also co-stars Tony Danza

Are you worried that the MPAA is going to give you a hard time because of all the sex in the movie? Do you think you’re going to have to edit down before it’s in wide release?

JGL: I’m not worried about it. That was always the premise of this movie. In fact, if you read the script, the very first page is a director’s note that says this is going to be a rated R comedy. It’s always intended to be a mainstream pop movie. My intention was never to shock people. My intention was never to make something ultra provocative. I wanted a movie that was accessible and entertaining and relatable for everybody. It says in this director’s note we will license real pornography clips and alter them to make them fit into an R rated movie. What we presented at Sundance was clearly pushing the envelope hard and we knew we were – because it’s Sundance so why not? I actually think that since then we’ve refined those shots. We haven’t cut anything out. The difference between the Sundance cut and then the cut that’s playing at SXSW, is four seconds. It’s only from one shot. There was one shot that used to be eight seconds long and now it’s four seconds long. That’s the only time that actually got cut out. By the way, that moment plays much better now that it’s shorter. Everything else is just refined, cropping something closer. No story points, no dialogue, nothing has been cut out. The movie’s really substantially the same and if anything, it’s just better because it’s more refined. By putting in clips that are less sexually explicit it forced me and my editor to come up with more clever ways to tell the story. At no point in these montages is it just showing pornography for the sake of showing pornography. Every little bit is sort of a story point. We’ve been working on what images fulfill those story points and I think they’re definitely better now than they were at Sundance. We’re still working on it and I think it’s really just getting better.